The Dead Zone: A Chilling Blend of Supernatural and Human Drama

Stephen King week continues here with another blast from the past. Though it wouldn’t be accurate to characterize The Dead Zone as underrated, this 1983 film adaptation has maybe been forgotten in the shuffle of all the Hollywood treatments of King’s work. But it’s David Cronenberg and Stephen King and Christopher Walken. That’s a lot of pedigree crammed into one little horror movie. Not surprisingly, The Dead Zone is still one of the better Stephen King adaptations to come out of Hollywood.

Synopsis

High school English teacher Johnny Smith’s life is upended after a horrific car accident. After five years in a coma, Johnny wakes up to find his job gone and his girlfriend married. But Johnny soon discovers he’s awoken from a coma with a gift. When he physically touches another person, Johnny catches glimpses flashes of that person’s past and their future. Initially reluctant to embrace his gift, Johnny’s chance encounter with an ambitious politician sets him on an irreversible crash course.

The Dead Zone Finds the Human in the Supernatural

In spite of its supernatural roots, The Dead Zone doesn’t rely much on traditional horror. In fact, Cronenberg’s adaptation downplays jumps and jolts in favour of thehuman story at the core of King’s novel. Much of The Dead Zone focuses on Christopher Walken’s “Johnny” dealing with what he’s lost while adjusting to the ‘gift’, or ‘curse’, he’s gained. Cronenberg paces his adaptation well, economically using early scenes to humanize Johnny. His scenes with former girlfriend, Sarah, are heartbreaking. Later scenes with Johnny drawing a student of his shell emphasize not only is humanity but his struggle to find where he fits in the world. It’s these quiet moments that make Johnny’s choice to finally embrace his gift all the more tragic. As a result, The Dead Zone’s supernatural premise feels believable because it’s an organic part of the story rather than a contrived element driving it.

…Walken convinces you that the tragic car accident cursed ‘Johnny Smith’ with psychic abilities.

Of course, Christiopher Walken’s performance gives Cronenberg a huge assist in this regard. For some viewers, Walken is the guy from the Fatboy Slim video, Weapon of Choice. Other audiences may think of Walken from the various celebrity impressions that have cropped up over the years. But look no further than The Deer Hunter if you need a reminder of Walken’s talent. In The Dead Zone, Walken gives an electric performance. He takes Johnny from sullen and morose to galvanized in the blink of an eye. Most importantly, Walken convinces you that the tragic car accident cursed ‘Johnny Smith’ with psychic abilities.

The Dead Zone May Be Cronenberg’s Least Cronenberg Movie

Today, David Cronenberg’s name is synonymous with body horror. Watch his early work – Rabid, Shivers, or The Brood – and Cronenberg has a distinct style. Dino De Laurentiis and Paramount released The Dead Zone in between Videodrome and The Fly. Both of those movies are clearly Cronenberg films. With The Dead Zone, Cronenberg crafts an effective chiller that exhibits a lot of restraint. Johnny’s psychic flashes, particularly his first one, are both haunting and unnerving. There’s clear film-making craft in these scenes or touches of innovation. Putting Johnny in the middle of his own visions jolts the audience. It’s a creative choice that puts the audience in Johnny’s place. No, it’s not the body horror of The Fly. But it is an exercise in restraint that matches the story’s tone.


Yet at the same time, Kamen’s work in The Dead Zone never overpowers the movie. It takes on an omnipresent role in the movie, present and creeping, but not distracting.

Once again, however, composer Michael Kamen assists Cronenberg with a fantastic musical score. Following The Dead Zone, Kamen would go on to create memorable scores for ’80’s action staples like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. His score for The Dead Zone is distinct – it plays a signfiicant role in building the movie’s tension. Yet at the same time, Kamen’s work in The Dead Zone never overpowers the movie. It takes on an omnipresent role in the movie, present and creeping, but not distracting. Horror fans may even see traces of horror DNA that Kamen would resurrect for his work on Event Horizon.

The Dead Zone is a Top Tier King Adaptation

The Dead Zone is a King adaptation that’s maybe gotten lost in the shuffle. Horror fans will quickly cite The Shining, Stand By Me, Misery, or The Shawshank Redemption as favourite adaptations of King’s work. Likewise, Cronenberg fans may quickly rattle off Videodrome, The Fly, or Crash as among their personal picks. To some extent, The Dead Zone has slipped into anonymity. But make no mistake about it, The Dead Zone is a chilling supernatural story with a very human element to it. It remains one of the better Stephen King adaptations out there and is worth re-discovering.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: A

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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